Dropping the F-bomb: why “foodie” needs to go away

Life used to be so easy. You ate to live. Then, man discovered fire and realized mastodon tastes a lot better with a nice sear on it. Around 500,000 years later, Homo foodieus evolved, and now it’s impossible to go out to eat without camera flashes going off at the tables around you.

Mercifully, there’s a Foodie Backlash taking root in America, and I feel the time is ripe (Did you see how I tossed two food puns into that sentence? Annoying, isn’t it?) to go public with my loathing for this odious word and the obnoxious behavior that too often goes with it.

I realize I’m setting myself up here. I’m a food journalist. Don’t I perpetuate all of this silliness, getting readers in a lather over the Next Big Food Thing? Don’t I eat at nice restaurants and drink expensive wine? Well, yes. And, no (and to that latter hypothetical question, less often that you’d think in this economy).

I like to think that through (most of) my work, I promote importance of understanding where food comes from, and urging localized food security. I’m concerned about protecting the environment, public health, and genetic diversity in plants and livestock; conserving natural resources, and finding more humane ways to raise and slaughter livestock.

Does that make me the culinary equivalent of Mother Theresa, or absolve me of my written transgressions that are less pure in culinary intent? Hell no; I can be a hedonist, too. But I’m trying to make a point here. I realize that my bordering-on-obsessive hatred of “foodie” is really about the culture it’s perpetuating. That said, the word itself is infantile, idiotic, and meaningless, and makes me want to poke my eyes out with a larding needle. Can’t people just say they love food?

My biggest issue with foodie as a concept is that it’s detrimental to the remarkable, burgeoning food culture we’ve finally achieved in the United States. In a mere 100 years, we went from agrarian society to culinary wasteland to possessing identifiable food regions. We established a world-class artisan food, sustainable agriculture, and fine dining scene in certain parts of the country.

What went wrong? We paid $200 (for a bottle of estate olive oil), and instead of passing “Go,” we became a cult of food elitists. It’s the antithesis of why many of us got into the food business in the first place. Yes, care about what you eat, but food shouldn’t have a sense of entitlement attached to it.

Do you really need to be on a first name basis with the person who sells you fava beans? It’s a wonderful thing to develop a relationship with local growers but the posturing and farmer name-dropping one-upmanship I’ve witnessed while working at farmers markets in recent years is over the top. Real supporters of sustainable agriculture–of real food–don’t go trolling for discounts or freebies, because they understand just how hard farmers work for a living.

In a perfect world, everyone should have access to fresh, wholesome, local, delicious food, especially children. Thanks to the good work of organizations like the Chez Panisse Foundation and the increasing number of school lunch programs, community gardens, and other food security initiatives across the country, this isn’t an impossible goal for Americans to achieve, nor is tackling our obesity epidemic in a one-two punch.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to spend disposable income, if you have it, on costly ingredients or dining out. But the fetishizing of food, the pissing contest that is the hallmark of the archetypal foodie is what I cannot abide. This is what’s at the heart of foodieism; the need to belong to a special club, with a language all its own. In our status-obsessed society, we need to separate ourselves from the plebes who think that the Olive Garden is serving “Italian” food.

Eating well (not necessarily synonymous with eating “expensively”) is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and cooking for other people and joining them at the table sustains us in ways that go beyond filling our stomachs. Every food lover (see? doesn’t sound so bad, does it?) has a deep, fundamental reason for why they’re so moved by the act of eating.

For me, it’s the cultural aspects of food, its intrinsic relationship to travel, as well as the people who grow, forage, raise, catch, and make food on a small, sustainable scale that I find captivating. These are things that I was fortunate enough to experience in childhood, and they made an indelible impression on me, as well as fostered my culinary career.

Good food–be it a ripe peach, a great street taco, or a lavish, multi-course meal–brings me joy. For what it’s worth, however, my parents aren’t “food people.” I grew up on a ranch, but I also ate a lot of frozen vegetables and TV dinners, because my mom had two kids to raise, dislikes cooking, and for her, the ’70’s with its advent of guiltless convenience foods was a godsend.

There’s also the bad manners perpetuated by foodie culture. On what planet is it okay to “just pop into the kitchen” during a packed dinner service to talk to the chef…especially when s/he’s a total stranger? Yet my boyfriend and I witnessed this scenario, while dining at a certain famous restaurant.

After three hours of listening to the ten-top beside us discourse on the merits of Brittany sea salt purchased at the source versus approximately 12 other kinds of hand-harvested salt, we were ready to clobber them. Look, if you want to spend your money on that shit and then have a debate about it, that’s your perogative. Just don’t hold a small, intimate restaurant as captive audience. Few things are more deadly boring than foodies in a feeding frenzy.

We watched their lengthy progression of courses congeal and grow cold as they scurried around the table snapping food porn. At meal’s end, the ringleader hopped up and made her foray into the kitchen. And, because it was a small, intimate restaurant and my boyfriend and I were seated nearby, we heard the following words come out of the mouth of the extremely irate sous chef who blocked her path: “Lady, we’re in the middle of fucking service. Get the hell out of here!”

Cue applause meter.

Foodies should also remember that while home cooking, traveling, and dining out most certainly give you an education about food, they don’t, in most cases, make you an expert. Yelp serves a purpose, to be sure, but it’s often a means of settling a score or self-promoting. Or, in the case of food blog reviews written by foodies (as opposed to, say, writers with actual journalism and culinary credentials, both) a way to say, “I’m a food writer too!” One food blogger I stumbled across while researching this story had written on a recent post, “I think [foodie] is a very serious title. It’s like calling yourself a writer or an artist. It means you have to have the knowledge, talent and experience to back it up.”

Um, please get over yourself. Knowing about food, winning a Pulitzer, being the greatest chef on earth…at the end of the day, it’s just effing food. Not the cure for cancer or achieving world peace.

I think esteemed food writer and author Amanda Hesser said it best when she was quoted in a Chicago Tribune article last year: “Having more people interested in good food is never a bad thing,” she said, but what she can’t abide is eating dinner with people who “only want to talk about food and every place where they ate, like, doughnuts or something, and where the best doughnuts are secretly found. Knowing a lot about food culture is a good thing. That cataloguing of food experience is becoming tiresome. I’m pro-food experts. I’m just not so sure I want to have dinner with them or have them judge me on the coffee I drink.”


[Photo credits: mushroom cloud, Flickr user Juampe López, poster, Flicker user Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com]

Video of the Day: Baby eats wasabi

We’ve obviously been talking about food a lot this week. Food and travel are always linked, as we remember places as much for their tastes and smells as we do for their sights and sounds. While I’m now an avid traveler, I grew up taking pretty standard vacations to Florida and all-inclusive resorts. As such, I didn’t really get to experience ethnic cuisines and challenging tastes until later in life. The baby in the video, however, is getting a leg (or tongue) up on the competition by experiencing flavors at an incredibly young age. OK, enough of me making this sound poignant. Just watch a baby eating wasabi already.

Cockpit Chronicles: Video—Food in the cockpit. How it’s prepared and what is served

“I’m getting kind of tired of these chicken Caesar salads.”

I said those words just a few months into my career at American. The statement resonated loudly after I was furloughed and flying for a freight airline with barely a bottle of water on board, so I vowed that I would never complain about a crew meal again.

In fact, when I came back to AA I nearly cried when a flight attendant entered the 727 cockpit and asked us what we wanted to drink.

Now, after ten years of international flying, mostly to Europe, I’ve enjoyed more crew meals than I probably should have. Warm dishes on an airline flight might be foreign to today’s passengers and even some of our domestic pilots, but on the international side we still enjoy food just as it was in the earlier days of airline flying.

The usual transatlantic daytime flight might include appetizers, such as nuts and cheese, salads, a main course with an overabundance of bread and a slice of cheesecake perhaps, followed later by a Sundae or cookies. Before landing in the afternoon, there’s often a cheese plate or fruit dish, followed by a pizza or steak sandwich.

Honestly, it’s too much. But if you’re paying for a business class experience, over indulging every now and then isn’t bad. For pilots however, these crew meals can add more pounds in the first year of international flying than during a freshman year in college.

I limit myself to just the nuts as a starter followed by the salad. Later, if there’s any fruit available, I’ll have some of that, or if it’s morning in Europe, the cold cereal is a good choice. Anything more and I begin to feel overly tired during the overnight flight across the pond. Since I’ve cut back I’ve noticed a definite slackening of my uniform pants.

Typically three meals are put on for the three-pilot cockpit crew, two items the same, often chicken or steak and the third perhaps being a pasta dish.

Most co-pilots give the choice of meal to the captain, and the captain often defers back to the co-pilot. It can become comical at times; neither pilot wanting to make what is probably the least important decision of the flight. Alas, it’s typically decided that whoever is flying the plane for that leg should choose.

I’ve enlisted the help of our flight attendant Susan, who made a brief appearance in my Boston to Paris video seven years ago, to appear again in front of the camera to show how she manages the cockpit and passenger meals for a 10½ hour flight from Rio to New York.

Notice just how busy Susan is before boarding. As the “number five” flight attendant out of nine aboard our 767, she’s ‘the cook’ up front, responsible for not only preparing and cooking the meals, but setting up the galley on the ground.

Passengers in the back also enjoy a hot meal, and there’s another flight attendant with three ovens getting ready to prepare that food as well.

Every month the meal types and even the kind of cheese in the appetizer change. Some plates are exceptional-a white chocolate glazed chicken dish sounded terrible but turned out to be fantastic-and some I’ve avoided after just one bite, such as the foie gras stuffed chicken.

The ‘insert’ shown in the video is mostly an international custom. It keeps the pilots from having to call back every time they’re ready for more water or soda. It’s brought to the cockpit only after takeoff to prevent anything loose from bouncing around the flight deck.

The sundaes and baked cookies aren’t normally part of our meals, but some of the nicer flight attendants will still offer them.

In the past, no two pilots could eat the same meal, and they had to be served at different times. At my airline, these restrictions have been relaxed, however.

For the past year or so, I’ve taken to capturing some of the crew meals with a camera. Apparently I fall into the crowd that likes taking food pictures. The gallery below shows some of my favorite crew meals of all time:


Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Falling in love with oysters

The allure of the oyster always mystified me. For years, I’d wrinkle my nose when my tablemates would order the slippery creatures, put off by the texture of the little puddles of flesh. Don’t get me wrong: I like seafood. I grew up near the water, and I’ve scarfed down everything pulled from the sea ever since I could chew. And that’s not just fish–crustaceans are more than fair game, and I clamor to pry clams and mussels from their shells. But oysters always made me uncomfortable. It was something about their slimy, briny consistency–it seemed akin to willingly slurping down a slug.

So for a while I feigned interest. In New Orleans, I passed over the famous Oysters Rockfeller at Antoine’s, opting instead for a taste of something I thought would provide a perfect out: The Po’boy. A heaping portion of anything fried and served in a bun typically falls within my culinary wheelhouse, and the Parkway Bakery’s po’boy is considered to be one of the best in the city. The rubbery consistency of fried oysters was close enough to the clam rolls of my youth that I bit in without second thought. And to be honest, even mid-meal, no real difference between the two really registered in my mind; if anything there was a slightly creamier texture beneath the crispy oyster’s crust. I convinced myself that I’d overcome my aversion, but inside I knew the truth. I was still an oyster virgin. And for a while, I was okay with that.Then, earlier this year, I was offered an important opportunity that hinged largely upon my knowledge of oysters (or at least an appreciation for the creatures). So I did what most journalists do when encountered with an unfamiliar subject, and I dug deep, researching a foodstuff that I’d never really tried. I read that the Greeks worshiped the oyster and believed that Aphrodite, goddess of love, emerged the ocean in an oyster shell (which is the root of why they’re now considered aphrodisiacs). I found out that when the first colonial settlers arrived in the Chesapeake Bay, oyster reefs were so plentiful that they were considered navigational hazards (back then, they reportedly found oysters that were 13 inches long). Oysters, I learned, are an important part of the watery ecosystem, flushing out algae and pollutants from the water and creating reefs that help support other sea life. Groups like the Nature Conservancy and the Oyster Recovery Partnership have been working to repopulate oyster beds in areas around the country, as the conservancy estimates that in places like the Chesapeake, the oyster population is only one percent of what it once was. After giving myself a tutorial in all things oyster, my assignment thankfully worked out, and I was left feeling extremely beholden to the little bivalves. So I set out to get to know them better this summer.

In New England, where I live, oyster-selling establishments have history: The Union Oyster House is Boston‘s–and the country’s–oldest restaurant. It opened in 1826 and has been continuously operating ever since (J.F.K. apparently used to patronize a booth upstairs). It’s also a pretty crowded tourist attraction, but thankfully, one of Boston’s greatest oyster galleries is just a few blocks away, and it’s there that I had my official introduction.

Neptune Oyster bar is tiny and covered in white subway tiles that make you feel a bit like you’re dining in a fish market. Which in essence, you are. Their rotating menu of oysters are brought in daily from both coasts, and are served fanned out in circles and placed on a pile of shaved ice and rock salt. They’re elevated on the table on a little stand, not unlike the way pizza is served in certain restaurants, which allows you to get a closer glimpse of each variation. That was how I realized that I’d never really looked at an oyster up close: The ripples in the shells, the pearly white insides, the little pools of meat that admittedly still kind of creeped me out.

But I was there for the experience, and so experience I did. Aligning my mouth on the edge of the shell, I made my first fateful slurp. Salty and fresh, it tasted like the ocean. For the next half hour, as we worked our way through the plate, my friends and I explored the flavors as we would with wine. Earthy, mossy, bright, and fruity; who knew oysters varied so greatly? I spent the next few weeks ordering oysters on every menu I encountered, hoping to expand my palate. By summer’s end, I had not only gotten over my squeamishness, but landed on a favorite, the creamy, buttery Island Creeks, which are sustainably harvested in nearby Duxbury, Massachusetts.

I quickly learned that Island Creeks are a big deal in the Bay State; they have a new restaurant that opened in Boston this year, and are also the subject of a the book Shucked, out this month, about author Erin Byers Murray’s year spent working at the oyster farm. So I decided to complete my oyster appreciation tour with a pilgrimage of sorts.

Island Creek hosts an annual festival to raise funds for their charity, the Island Creek Oyster Foundation, which is working to build sustainably-grown oyster beds in Zanzibar and Haiti. So on a gorgeous afternoon earlier last month, I entered the huge tent that they’d set up on the beach in Duxbury, which was filled with outstanding chefs preparing oyster BLTs, grilled oysters, and hundreds and hundreds of raw oysters, shucked and served just out of the sea. “Look this one, it’s a porn star,” one shucker said as he handed an extremely large selection (apparently both oysters and porn stars are judged on the size of their cups). I eyed it greedily, and realized that when I comes to oysters, I’d finally come out of my shell.

An ode to the Hawaiian Plate Lunch

One of the finest meals I’ve ever eaten was on the island of Oahu at a fancy bistro called Chef Mavro. This place is expensive — It’s no problem to spend 100 dollars per person on dinner. But the beautifully sculpted little plates had melt in your mouth sashimi and delicately browned crab rolls in fine rice paper wrappers and, oh, truly, it was a memorable experience.

I can’t think of Chef Mavro’s pricey restaurant without, in the same moment, thinking of a meal I’d had not 24 hours earlier at a bright green diner in funky, hippie-crunchy Honoka’a on Hawaii’s Big Island. At CC Jon”s Snack and Shoppe I spent about 7 dollars on chicken katsu, rice, mac salad, and a huge Styrofoam cup of soda. And there, I fell in love with the plate lunch. For some reason, I mentioned this to our waiter at Chef Mavro. “You went to CCs!” exclaimed the self described Big Island boy. “I’m from Honoka’a, that place is da kine.”

Hawaii has remarkable food. Smack in the middle of the ocean, populated by Native Hawaiians, Europeans (predominantly Portuguese, at first), and people from around the Pacific Rim, it’s a melting pot of culinary cliches — fresh, fusion, Pacific Rim, organic, local…. There’s an abundance of tropical produce and the boats come in daily bearing fresh seafood. Hawaii Regional Cuisine — the combination of locally sourced ingredients combined with the chef’s own sensibilities — seems almost inevitable in a place where good ingredients are readily available.

But my heart and its hardened arteries belong to junkier offerings. Haupia malasadas: essentially, a donut filled with coconut pudding. Chicken long rice: Fried noodles with chicken and a passing acknowledgment to vegetables. Milkshakes from the Roselani counter in the International Marketplace, good lord, the butterfat. And all that takes back seat to the main course, the plate lunch.At its most basic, the plate lunch is two scoops of white rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, thick with mayonnaise, and a serving of meat. Fried, probably, though you can also get two grilled Portuguese sausage patties or a serving of garlic shrimp. Plate lunch typically comes on a flimsy paper or other throwaway plate, or in a Styrofoam container that you can carry across the street to that picnic bench that’s makai — ocean side — from the food truck. It generates a shocking amount of garbage, the containers, the napkins, the plastic forks and knives. The classic plate lunch is unhealthy, environmentally unfriendly, and awesome.

Historically, the plate lunch is attributed to plantation workers combining leftover rice with whatever meat or fish was available. It was the 1880s; sugar and pineapple magnates imported laborers from the Philippines, Portugal, Japan, China… they had to eat. The meal has evolved over time to include a green salad (probably with Thousand Island dressing) or brown rice in a nod towards taking the cholesterol count down a notch. On your plate lunch you can get fried chicken or teriyaki beef or kalua pork or any number of things. Can’t wait for lunch? There’s the breakfast plate lunch, loco moco. White rice, fried eggs, a burger patty, all smothered in gravy. I pass on that and go for either garlic shrimp or my favorite, poke — marinated raw tuna.

It’s easy to fall into metaphors that use the plate lunch as an analogy for life in Hawaii. A combination of cultures, all hanging out together and making something better for their merging. I don’t necessarily buy that happy idea. I think plate lunch is more of a delicious mess than a expression of cultural harmony. And wrapped up in that delicious mess is an experience that is quintessentially Hawaiian islands.

The wind picks up your napkins and hurls them down the beach, you have to run after them. Stuffed on rice, you bring your coffee milkshake the to car and leave it in the cup holder and then, in the mini-fridge in your room. Your fingers are sticky from peeling shrimp so you wash them in the surf and they are sticky from the ocean. You’re wracked with guilt over the staggering amount of mayo in the mac salad, and yet, you eat every last elbow shaped mayo coated piece of pasta. You swear that you will take a long walk to make up for the unbelievable amount of calories you consumed that afternoon, but when you get back to your rented condo or hotel, you are lulled into indolence by the evening light on the beautiful beach boys and girls. Somewhere, a kid who looks like a total bad-ass is playing the ukulele like an angel, the sweet sound of it floats on the breeze. Dinner time is coming and the L&L, Hawaii’s infamous takeout chain is right there.

“Plate lunch,” you think. “I could have that for dinner, right?”

Image: The Even More Legendary Giovanni’s #2 by Permanently Scattered via Flickr (Creative Commons)